Another Suitcase in Another Hall

I am traversing a fine line between having two lives. In one life I am the devoted husband and father, who trudges off faithfully to work in the morning, returns home in the early evening to kiss the wife, send paternal greetings to my daughter, eat a leisurely dinner and then shuffle off to bed around ten o’clock. I repeat the pattern four or five times a week, until I start the weekend pattern. With minor exceptions, this is the pattern of my life for maybe ten months a year.

The other two months of the year I am traveling. A week or two of it will be with family and for leisure. The rest of it is business traveling. Alas, that is what I am doing this week again. I spent last week at home. However, the previous week I was in Maine. Now I am seventy or so miles from home in Shepherdstown, West Virginia where I have parked my tuckus for the week.

I am not entirely clear why I am rooming and boarding here at the Office of Personnel Management’s Eastern Management Development Center. I could in theory commute to this weeklong training class. It took me seventy-five minutes or so to drive here last night from my home in Northern Virginia. I am here to wrap my brain around this leadership stuff. I know leadership is important. I have been doing my best to be a leader, but I have been doing it based on my intuition. Apparently, there is something of a science to the leadership business. By Friday, I will have spent about three thousand dollars of your tax money, will have not fully succeeded avoiding the voluminous food at this resort, and have a neat looking certificate to add to my pile of training certificates. I hope that I will embrace new skills that will show the world, or at least my organization, what a powerful and effective leader I am.

At least for this trip all I had to do was throw my suitcase into my trunk and drive for an hour or so. This makes it much more bearable than the usual routine of air travel and airport navigation. Generally, when I travel for business, at least one full business day is taken up getting there and back. This Management Development Center is physically attached to a swanky Clarion Hotel here in Shepherdstown. I am sure that most of its business comes from government travelers here attending seminars. Room and board come with the seminar fees. The hotel puts out a good spread of food. As well they should, considering the $800 a day my employer is paying for tuition. Fortunately, Shepherdstown is rapidly joining the civilized world. Two years ago when I was here my cell phone could not pick up a signal. The only way I could access the internet was to use a computer in a kiosk in one of the buildings. In 2006, my cell phone now reports four bars and the 11 mbps wireless LAN at the hotel is very sweet.

In my last business trip, I spent four nights in Augusta, Maine at The Senator Inn. For Augusta, it was premier lodging, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. The biggest surprise there was the hotel’s food. Its dining room, Cloud 9, was not quite a four star restaurant, but was three and a half stars in my book. Even if you found the entrees less than perfect, all its desserts were outstanding. However, here at the Clarion Hotel meals are business standard fare: good to very good in taste, bad to very bad for your waistline. The same addictive food runneths over at lunch and dinner, which are also complementary for us seminar attendees. Stop me before I hit the dessert bar one more time!

“It’s like a cruise ship, except it never leaves port,” our instructor told me today over lunch. That is it precisely, except the rooms are bigger. It provides all of life’s amenities. The rooms are clean, upscale and comfortable. At night, the hotel is eerily quiet, perhaps because it is so far out in the country. You can walk indoors a few hundred feet and cross into the Management Development Center. There you sit at tables with half a dozen other classmates, listen to lectures, absorb PowerPoint slides, work on group exercises and shuffle off to frequent breaks where the sodas and coffee are plentiful (and complementary, naturally).

It feels a bit surreal. It is work, I guess, but it also feels like a vacation. At 5 p.m. or so when class is done for the day, rather than endure the hassle of a commute, you can be in your room in just a couple minutes. A few minutes after that you can be in the exercise center on a cardiovascular machine, or dipping into the clean outdoor pool. Then, unless you are anal like me and feel some obligation to read your office email, you can drift off to the dining room with a fellow classmate for dinner. Then it is back to your room where can read, play on your laptop computer, or watch HBO as takes your fancy. You can do this for many guiltless hours until fatigue gently overtakes you and you drift off into a gentle and restful sleep. Thank you Senator Robert C. Byrd, who used his influence to populate Shepherdstown with federal largess. No Motel Six accommodations for us movers and shakers of the United States federal civil service.

It is true my family is not here. I do not have my wife sitting next to me, happily writing her latest fan fiction story on her computer for her internet friends. I do not converse with my daughter to hear how her day went. (She is on summer vacation anyhow, so her days rather run together for her anyhow. I am not missing anything.) Consequently, offsite training like this does start to feel like a vacation from responsibility and routine. All of life’s needs can be conveniently met and I do not even have to leave a climate-controlled space.

Most of my business travel, alas, is not like this. More typically, business travel means days of meetings followed by evenings spent socializing with others from my agency. Nevertheless, it does begin to run together after a while. Whereas it used to seem strange and disconcerting to wake up in a hotel room, now I hardly give it another thought. It feels almost as natural as shuffling to the field office in the morning in a rental car. The airports, the airline delays, the security bottlenecks, the announcements from the flight attendants, the taxi rides and the jet lag all blend together after a while. The rooms and locations may change, but somehow it seems familiar, as if I have been doing this much of my life. It has slowly become something of a second life for me.

I do not know whether I like it or not. It came with the territory of my latest job. I can expect to be at a minimum on the road for six weeks or so a year. I take some solace in knowing it could be worse. I know a fellow unit chief whose travel is much more demanding. He can easily spend three months of the year on the road. No wonder he is single. Not too many spouses would put up with this degree of absence.

In any event, another dimension to my life has opened. I have this new part time gig: business traveler. When I travel, it is as if I am in living a different life. After a week, I am transported back into this more familiar place called “home”. I find my wife lying next to me in bed again in the morning. I tread a different pathway to the bathroom. I relearn how to use my toilet (lever is on the side) and the shower (hot water on the right). After a day or so, memories of my vagabond business traveling life recede. Until next time.

I am hopeful that I have only one more business trip to go this year. There is no telling for sure. I am already looking at next year, and I see at least three trips to Denver and at least two other trips on my agenda. I suspect there will be a few more thrown in there for good measure.

It will feel strange, probably upon retirement, to close out this new part of my life, and once again resume a full time and homebound life.

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